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Catholic leaders in the Amazon are talking about ‘ecological conversion.’ Here’s what this means.

The Amazon Synod also proposed allowing married deacons to become priests.

- November 12, 2019

The Catholic Church wrapped up its three-week Amazon Synod in Rome on Oct. 27. The pope convened the conference — officially, a “special assembly” of the Holy See’s deliberative council of bishops — to develop recommendations for church policy in the nine-country Amazon region. Most news media focused on a controversial proposal from the Working Document that summarizes the synod’s results: to allow married deacons in the region to become priests.

The media have paid less attention to the synod’s central theme: care for the Amazonian environment and its people. Environmental concerns have gained increasing relevance with a recent spate of devastating fires in the Brazilian and Bolivian Amazon forest.

Before convening in Rome, the synod conducted a months-long process of “listening to the peoples” of the Amazon “and to the earth.”

The Working Document uses complex language that weaves environmentalist ideas into Catholic theology. For example, the document’s introduction discusses “the cry that is provoked by destructive deforestation and extractivist activities and that demands an integral ecological conversion.”

What do terms such as “integral ecology” and “ecological conversion” mean? And why is the church using them? Here’s what you need to know.

The new Catholic ecological theology: a short glossary

“Integral ecology.” This term, which appears dozens of times in the Working Document, comes from Pope Francis’s 2015 treatise “Laudato Si’.” In short, it means recognizing that everything on Earth is closely tied to everything else. For humans to flourish, we have to understand how vast systems connect and interrelate. As Father Thomas Reese explains, “Relationships take place at the atomic and molecular level, between plants and animals, and among species in ecological networks and systems.” Hence, ecology must be integral, meaning recognizing how everything fits together to create a whole system.

“Ecological conversion.” This is another term the Pope first put forth in “Laudato Si’,arguing that people need to awaken to nature, just as they convert to Christianity.

“Ecological sin.” This introduces the idea that people can sin against nature, just as they can sin against human beings. The term didn’t make its way into the final Working Document. However, the idea was a hot topic at the synod. We see traces of it throughout the final document, in passages such as, “A fundamental aspect of the root of human sin is to detach oneself from nature and not recognize it as part of the human and to exploit nature without limits, thus breaking the original covenant with creation and with God (Gen 3:5).”

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Why here and now?

In the church’s own staid way, the new ideas in “Laudato Si’ and the Amazon Synod show how the church is reinventing the theology of a religion that’s two millennia old for the 21st century. What is driving these changes?

The most obvious answer is: Pope Francis. The most recent pope chose a symbolic name. His subsequent efforts seem inspired by his bird-loving, wolf-blessing namesake.

However, my ongoing research suggests that it’s more than just a Pope Francis effect. Instead, interviews from my new book project suggest that the church’s grass roots are demanding a theology of the environment.

For the past five years, I’ve been researching religion, politics, and environmental attitudes in Brazil among both Catholics and evangelicals. To date — and I’m still conducting the research — I’ve completed interviews with 71 Roman Catholic clergy in the southeast region of the country; online survey experiments with Catholics and evangelicals; and case studies in four Catholic parishes in the northeastern state of Pernambuco.

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Here’s what Catholics are doing to change minds about environmental responsibilities

My research finds that lay Catholics and parish priests are introducing language and ideas to try to change how their fellow Catholics think about their responsibilities to the environment. For instance, a lay leader in one parish in Recife has been teaching her catechism class that there is an Eleventh Commandment on top of Moses’s 10: to love and respect the environment, which is God’s creation.

A parish priest in a poor neighborhood of Recife has started calling trees and stray dogs “brothers” and “sisters” to draw his parishioners’ attention to the connections among all living things. And after a mining disaster in Brumadinho that killed at least 248 people in a flood of suddenly liquefied tailings waste, another priest in Recife spoke eloquently about “God drenched in mud” to indicate the magnitude of divine despair over the tragedy.

The Amazon Synod’s final statement, then, arises out of a soil already rich with new ideas.

The history and politics of the church’s social agenda

To understand the present moment, we can recall the church’s activism of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In that era, “liberation theology” re-envisioned Christian doctrine as a force for both spiritual and material liberation of the poor and downtrodden.

Much as is happening today, a combination of what scholars call “demand-side” (i.e., lay Catholics) and “supply-side” (i.e., clergy) forces appears to have made liberation theology successful. New social movements in that era demanded that the church pay more attention to the indigenous and poor. Their demands met the ready ears of religious leaders who needed to respond to increasing religious competition from Protestant churches.

Today, the Catholic Church across Latin America faces even more intense competition from Protestant — especially Pentecostal — churches, as well as declining membership. My new book finds that Brazil’s Catholic clergy are responding by emphasizing the church’s social justice roots.

In this context, the ecological theology of Pope Francis and the Amazon Synod’s bishops is watering the church’s thirsty grass roots.

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Amy Erica Smith (@amyericasmith) is associate professor of political science and a Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Professor at Iowa State University, and the author of “Religion and Brazilian Democracy: Mobilizing the People of God” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).